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The Melting Pot, the Salad Bowl, and the Confucian Ideal

By James Farrer | January 31, 2008

In the melting pot, by tanakawho (CC).

Many political analysts concur that we are entering a multipolar world order. In the New York Times Magazine (Jan. 27), Parag Khanna argues that the new world order will be a tripolar competition between Europe, China, and the United States, each struggling to gain and maintain influence over a set of second-tier powers and peripheral regions.

Khanna also argues that each of these three "empires" has a different mode of engagement with other nations: the American model of aggressive military and political interventions, the European model of voluntary annexation of nearby states into its transnational institutions, and a Chinese style of consultative and pragmatic leadership based on mutual noninterference and national sovereignty.

Yet, this imperial competition will not simply take place in terms of foreign policy. Immigration and social policies directed at ethnic minorities are related to foreign policy and the management of foreign alliances. In other words, the different models of empire represented by America, Europe, and China are in part a reflection of the management of internal population diversity.

First, despite some academic rhetoric to the contrary, the United States remains a melting-pot nation, bringing in millions of people and incorporating them into an Anglo-American civilization based on broadly shared liberal ideals—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Anti-immigration ideologues may challenge this view of a borderless American dream, but it remains the attraction for tens of millions of documented and undocumented immigrants hoping to stay in the United States.

Because of this widely accepted model of immigrant incorporation, most of the millions of immigrants do learn English (or their children certainly do), and there are few foreign political extremists among the largely assimilated U.S. immigrant populations. Similarly, American foreign policy also is based upon the principle that most people want the same things that Americans want: democratic, liberal capitalism. Things can go wrong when U.S. presidents misjudge the willingness of foreign populations to embrace the American dream, but it remains the consistent touchstone of American foreign policy, good or bad.

In contrast, European immigrant policies have generally represented much more of a "salad bowl" approach to immigrant incorporation—based on an ideal of multiculturalism and the coexistence of populations that retain their own customs and identities. With the rise of Islamic extremism among some groups of immigrants, Europeans are beginning to embrace policies of mainstreaming or selecting more assimilable immigrant populations, but the whole ideal of European integration remains that of a multinational order in which cultural difference is widely respected.

Within individual European countries, it is hard to reverse the perception that immigrants, especially those from Africa and Asia, are social and political outsiders, and hard to persuade these immigrants that they can truly be "German" or "Dutch." Despite the diversity of its contents, the salad's "bowl" remains strong, based on the ideals of universal human rights and strong juridical and political institutions. The Enlightenment basis of European empire is very similar to the United States, but the political structure is obviously quite different.

Comparatively speaking, Europe's model of a multiethnic society is weaker in one sense (involving a weaker sense of social solidarity than the U.S. model) and stronger in another (based on a commitment to a cosmopolitan or supranational juridical order, including such truly global institutions as the International Criminal Court). Europe, by creating a salad bowl of nationalities scattered across national boundaries, allows for a much more expansive but also potentially explosive mixture of cultures within a vision of a postnationalist empire. But it also presents an attractive model of a cosmopolitan international political order, based on supranational institutions without the requirement to assimilate to a common language and culture. To the extent this model functions within immigrant Europe, it may become attractive globally.

China, meanwhile, presents a very different model of dealing with ethnic and national differences within its own borders. The policies toward internal ethnic "others" have also developed in a much different environment than in either the United States or Europe. Over many dynasties, the Chinese empire developed a civilizational model of imperial tutelage based on a principle of moral leadership enshrined in Confucian doctrines. The Confucian ideal implied that anyone could "become Chinese" by learning the proper behaviors and thoughts of a scholar.

In reality, however, the Chinese model of managing ethnic minorities and foreign nationals owes much more to the Soviet Union's model of a multiethnic socialist state than to Confucian principles. Similar to the USSR, the People's Republic of China recognizes 55 "national minorities," many living in designated "autonomous regions." Although China's minorities comprise less than 10 percent of the population, they occupy important strategic areas in western China. They are given special, separate, and sometimes advantageous status in social matters such as education and birth control, but they are culturally marginal and politically subordinate to the majority Han.

Despite the collapse of the multiethnic Soviet Union, the Chinese have stood by this Soviet-style model of managing ethnic minorities, using a mix of force, Han colonization, and economic incentives to keep minority populations within the state, while still not abandoning the overt principles of respecting ethnic diversity. Similarly, foreigners living in China are treated as "special guests," but there are many policies geared toward limiting their influence on the majority Chinese population.

Until recently, foreigners were largely housed in areas separate from Chinese. Such restrictions are easing, but even now Chinese pupils are barred from attending the many international secondary schools in China's major cities. China's leadership has long realized this connection between treatment of internal minorities and resident foreigners and the implications for foreign policy. Chinese diplomats have carefully managed representations of the protected status of Muslim Chinese in order to promote an image of China as friendly to majority Muslim foreign states. Foreign "friends of China" have also long been used to promote Chinese ties with other countries. These policies will come under much closer scrutiny as China extends its influence over other nations.

How is this management of internal minorities reflected in Chinese foreign policy and the creation of a larger sphere of Chinese influence?

The Chinese premise their dealings with other peoples on the basis of cultural difference. Such cultural differences are assumed to coincide with ethnoracial categories, as with the Chinese minorities. On the surface, this celebration of ethnic difference involves a strong rhetoric of mutual respect. China's model of dealing with difference is very appealing to foreign governments that share the belief in fundamental civilizational difference, and allows for relatively easy relationships with a diverse set of foreign actors, from Sudan and Pakistan to Myanmar and North Korea.

In political discussions within China, Chinese like to argue that the collective virtue of a "5,000 year-old civilization" is a firm basis for global leadership. More than the size of the population, the length of history is often the key component of popular Chinese nationalist rhetoric, reflecting the ancient ideal of the Chinese empire as a civilizing force on its neighbors. The naming of the new Chinese cultural centers as "Confucius Institutes" is perhaps a reflection of this notion.

Although foreigners will welcome the opportunity to learn the Chinese language and customs, it seems unlikely that other nations will be equally impressed by the claims to civilizational virtue and distinctiveness that have such wide currency in internal Chinese discussions. As China moves to assert global leadership, the philosophical basis of its leadership claims will increasingly come under scrutiny.

The American, European, and Chinese models of empire or influence are not incompatible. Notions of difference can be made to coexist with notions of universality, and this is what is happening in practice.

Foreign policy and internal ethnic and immigration policy are linked at a fundamental level. Nations that base their claims to leadership on universal principles will be judged on how they exercise these principles in internal policies toward foreign and minority populations. Successful immigrant countries will have much greater success projecting power in an increasingly globalized and mobile world. Depending on developments in U.S. immigration policy, this could bode well for continued American influence on world events, and potentially also well for the growing authority of European models of global governance.

China, on the other hand, is constrained by a more limited tradition of coping with internal differences, and a model that can be construed as arguing for the dominance of one ethnic group over others. How future Chinese leaders will balance such an emphasis on cultural and civilizational differences with claims to global leadership is unclear, but it is a challenge China's leaders must face as its profile grows on the world stage.


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Read More: Culture, Diplomacy, Globalization, Migration, Security, China, United States, Americas, Asia, Europe, Global


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